Monday, January 19, 2009

The Video Project

Pittsburgh Filmmakers had, for many years, been a very small institution. But during my time in attendance, it was going through a period of tremendous growth. In my first year of enrollment, only three graduating seniors had films to present at the senior film showcase. The year I graduated, my film was one of nine projects screened.

When there are only three film projects in a graduating class, it makes sense to present them back-to-back-to-back. When there are nine, it makes less sense. Pittsburgh Filmmakers hadn't yet adapted to its growth and prosperity, and had not yet adjusted its presentation strategy for the senior film showcase. What that meant in practical terms was that some 220 people were squeezing into a 200-creaky-seat auditorium to watch an uninterrupted 3 1/2 hour presentation of student films. That's nobody's idea of a good time. The body heat alone was enough to kill; but the rain outside made everyone's clothes sticky and rendered the air in the screening room thick with humidity. Anyone would have fled that situation except for the people this event was designed for: supportive families and friends.

The films began to play, one after another. Some were good, some were less good. Mine was ok; I aimed for the middle, and that's exactly what I hit. Most were around ten minutes. There was a truly fantastic experimental film right in the middle of the program about 25 brilliant minutes long. But even if every single film had been intelligent, challenging and entertaining, this would still have been a monotonous and draining presentation. By the time "S" [see previous post] showed up in a third movie, people were ready to be done.

Finally, the eight film finished and the projector shut down. But the lights didn't come up. The crowd began to murmur and rustle. After about 90 seconds, there was a flash of light. Blue. A video projector had been turned on, all weak and blurry, magnified and thin, tinny audio.

The video began with a young couple on a blanket in a field. They were having the cliched lovey-dovey, gooey conversation. Then the girl said, in a cutesy way, something like, "What would you like me to do?" Suddenly, the boy responds "Die!" His voice was artificially deepened, and red flames were digitally inserted into his eyes. Let me say that again: flames were digitally inserted into his eyes! Then a freeze frame. Hard metal music blasts through the speakers. Oh God, we were in for it.

What followed was a brainless sci-fi story of industrial metal revenge. Needless to say, it made no sense at all. There was some tossed off backstory meant to explain why this guy had freaky eye-flaming superpowers, but who cared about the whys? The point of the whole thing was that the maker wanted to play with consumer-priced digital effects. Clearly inspired by "The Matrix" (still in its period of high popularity, before the sequels drained the goodwill from the fan base), the movie was a series of action set pieces, one right after the other, with no explanation of why this guy was going around killing people. Everything was shot in front of a green screen, which by itself isn't a problem; the problem is that the crappy, consumer-grade computer technology of 2002 was not sufficient to, you know, make things look good. Not to imply that the craftsmanship would have been better if professional-grade equipment had been used. Amateurism is amateurism.

Amateurism such as, for example, when the hero bent backwards to do the "Neo dodging the bullets" maneuver. You could clearly see that he was falling onto a green table that they weren't able to completely remove from the final effect. Comically, they didn't even bother cutting in clean audio. So not only could you see traces of the table in the shot, but you could also hear him thudding against the table top and skidding the legs against the floor.

So there were maybe 15 minutes of fighting and killing people. There was a fight with a computer generated robot with absolutely no texturing or shading. I completely forget how it ends, thank the lord, but I can almost guarantee you that our protagonist has a heroic death.

Now the audience was just pissed. After the long, arduous journey through three hours of somewhat decent films, we'd been subjected to this random, loud, unheralded (there was no reference to it in the program) mess of a video project. Worst of all, there were no credits at the end. In other words, there were no names on which to focus our rage. Who was responsible for this travesty? To this day, I have no idea who made it, where it came from, and why it was tacked onto the end of our otherwise respectable presentation.

As upsetting as that finale had been, I immediately put it behind me. There was a reception after the screening, and I was looking forward to basking in it with the other graduates.

Various family and friends offered their congratulations. There was mingling and snacking. Eventually, I ran into S. I smiled. He was already shaking his head. The disbelief hadn't worn off for him yet. He was looking for me to share it with him.

"Hey, good job," I said. "Your film came out great."

"...Ruined the whole night," he muttered.

"What?" I asked.

"That video at the end," he said. "It ruined the whole show. It brought everything down a level."

I couldn't disagree.

"Yeah," I said. "Who even made that?"

"I don't know," he said. "I don't know."

He shuffled off, still shaking his head in disgust, looking for more people to share his indignation. And that was the last time I ever saw S.


Film school is often considered a bastion of snobbery. This is a prejudice it earns. In 2002, it was still appropriate to be snobby about film's superiority to video. All throughout my film school education, teachers would toss random anti-video remarks into their lectures. And their conversations. And, no doubt, on dinner dates.

Projects such as the video described here were exactly why. Whoever made that video wouldn't have wasted his (and our) time with it if he'd had to pay the costs of purchasing film, getting it processed, getting it scanned into a computer system, and printing the computer generated imagery back onto film.

But that was 2002. These days, video quality has improved tremendously, and continues to improve every day. An increasing number of major motion pictures are being shot on high quality video formats; before long, the majority will be. I embrace these facts.

The problem with the video project was not that it was video instead of film. The problem was the lack of discipline, the lack of care. Basically, the maker of that project just wanted to be cool. Some of the films during that evening's presentation weren't all that good; but in every case, the filmmakers were trying for more. Maybe they missed the mark, but the will was there and that makes a difference. What disappointed us all that day was the posturing, and the lack of inspiration.

You know, snob stuff.